A Farewell Discourse

Opening thoughts and reflections on friendship

Since the announcement of my appointment as the 12th Rector of St Martin’s Providence, these last weeks have been filled with the experience of saying good-bye. This particular experience of saying goodbye is a very bittersweet one. It’s hard for human beings to say goodbye, which is why some of us long for nothing better than to just disappear in the quiet of the night – as it were.

Saying good-bye is hard because as I have experienced these last weeks, among the many, many expressions of love, affection, gratitude, good will, and good luck, there has been sadness in the face of a sense of impending loss. I have had to remind myself on numerous occasions over the last weeks that there is no greater testimony to the quality of human relationship than the experience of sadness at the moment of departure.

In John 14:1-14, the Gospel for Easter 5, we are given a continuation of Jesus’ very extended and prolonged good-byes to his disciples – known appropriately as the Farewell Discourses. John gives Jesus four long chapters for his good-byes, whereas on my last Sunday at Trinity Cathedral the sermon slot allows me an interval counted-out in mere minutes.

The culmination in Jesus’ long farewell comes in chapter 15:12 when Jesus tells his disciples to love one another as he has loved them. Yet, for me, the punch line comes in verse 15 when Jesus declares that his disciples are no longer his servants, but his friends. We are called to be Jesus’ friends and this is made concrete through the way we become friends with one another.

Arresting images

I am arrested by the first image that the writer of 1st Peter offers us in the Epistle for the 5th Sunday in Eastertide:

Like the newborn infants you are, you must crave for pure spiritual milk, so that you may thrive upon it to your soul’s health…[1] 

The writer of 1st Peter here is drawing upon the primary image for the connection of one human being to another – that of infant at the mother’s breast. Through it he offers us a vision of what is involved in being a Christian community of friends.

There is a very particular school of psychoanalysis known as the British School of Object Relations Theory. Object Relations Theory departs from the classical Freudian School in seeing the primary impulse of human nature, not as seeking gratification, but object relating. Object relating is the psychological term for human connection, fulfilled in relationships.

1st Peter can be read in a classical Freudian way where the focus is on the newborn’s desire to be gratified by the spiritual milk. After all we all desire to be fed, to have our hunger satiated, to experience the gratification of being full. Yet an Object Relations reading focuses our attention beyond our need to be fed to our desire for connection. The infant does not treat the mother’s breast only as an on-demand feeding machine. The breast becomes the first object for relationship. Relationship is further mediated through the loving gaze of the mother in whose face the infant learns to recognize its own reflection. The infant discovers itself to exist as it glimpses a reflection of itself in the mother’s, eyes, the mother’s smile, her voice, and her touch.

Object Relations Theory and Christianity, at least on this point, seem to me to share a profound understanding of human nature. The Christian understanding of human fulfillment is friendship with God. As Jesus tells his disciples friendship with God is reflected and experienced through friendship with one another. As 1st Peter suggests, the roots of our capacity for friendship are found in the earliest experience of encountering another.

It is no coincidence that both 1st Peter and the Object Relations School identify the roots of human friendship to lie in the encounter between infant and mother. Through having tasted the spiritual milk, our desire is to come and find rest within the loving gaze of God is nurtured. In the face of Jesus we glimpse ourselves made in the image of God. This is an image of relationality. God has revealed God self as a community of relationships. So to catch a glimpse of our own nature reflected back to us through verbal gaze of Jesus who calls us friends, we are nurtured into relationship with God through the quality of spiritual friendship binding us together as a Christian community.

The writer of 1st Peter now offers us a second arresting image:

So come to him, our living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight …[2] 

After I was ordained a deacon in 1985 and then priest the following year, I began a journey of surprising discovery about myself. Very quickly, I discovered that it was as if neon sign above my head flashed: if you struggle with an experience of estrangement, speak to me. I found this rather bewildering because I was the only one it seemed who could not see the sign.

Through the experience of others being drawn into conversation with me about what troubled them most I found myself compelled to seek in psychotherapy the training and skills I felt I had not been equipped with in the seminary. More significantly, I now understand that entering into psychotherapy training was also a way I could give myself permission to enter into begin my own self exploration in therapy.

Here, I learned that the one thing that troubles human beings most is a sense of marginalization, the experience of estrangement or rejection. Through beginning to notice this in others I was led to reflect on my own experience of living life on the periphery with the feeling of never really fitting-in. Marginalization or that sense of estrangement was a very confusing experience for me, because, the source of my feelings of marginalization were not immediately obvious to anyone else.

I learned that all of us have, not one identity, but several intersecting and often, conflicting identities. For instance, I was male, which is no mean signifier in patriarchal society. In addition to being male, I was a white, educated male, and as such equipped to make the most of the opportunity afforded me, and to successfully negotiate the dynamics of an unequal society in pursuit of my own self-interest. Yet, hidden within, or maybe not so hidden as I thought, the source of a profound sense of marginalization lay in knowing a truth of which I was ashamed. I was gay.

If we first discover ourselves through catching our reflection in the face of another, what happens when we are unable to find any externalized reflection of the most feared and painful parts of our self?

Over 18 years of ministry at the sharp end of mental health, I worked through my own sense of being marginal by ministering to others whose experience of marginalization seemed more obvious and more serious than my own. Human sexual identity and human emotional and psychological wellbeing are both fearful regions of our individual and collective experience. We all experience the nature of conflicting sexual desire. We all experience a continual assault upon the stability of our mental and emotional wellbeing. What do we do with these fears? We project our fears into those who evoke in us our deepest dreads – for how often have we felt there but for the grace of God, go I.

A farewell discourse

During these last four and half years, my ministry at Trinity Cathedral has reconfirmed that we often come together as spiritual friends through a shared experience of estrangement. Knowing my own experience as I do enables me to recognize the familiar tones of another’s struggle. My own experience sensitizes me to know what to look for in others. When I see the signs of fear and confusion in another’s eyes, I allow myself to become known to them.

Becoming known is not about sharing everything about me. It is not about inappropriate levels of self-disclosure. Becoming known is about signaling my availability to walk with another the path that leads out of the place of fear. In so doing I am signaling that this is a path I have trod before and can be trusted to be their guide along this way.

For me availability is the key to ministry. It’s the availability of the mother in giving herself over to the needs of her infant. Similarly, it is also the availability of the priest to likewise mirror for the community and its individual members God’s invitation into spiritual friendship.

God’s always communicates with us within the constraints of temperament. For some of us the invitation to spiritual friendship leads to a direct and somewhat mystical experience of God. For most of us God’s invitation to spiritual friendship will be chiefly known through our ability to be available for spiritual friendship with one another.

Through all the varied aspects of ministry, my chief concern is always to mirror the love of God. It would be a mistake for you to assume that I do this always from a place of confident strength. It would be a mistake to assume that I mirror from my abundant experience of the love of God. Most of the time I mirror from a place, not of abundance, but from a place of my own longing. In reflecting the love of God to others, my hope is that I may catch a glimpse of its return to me in the faces of others.

Mirroring is a process of seeing and becoming seen. Being able to see into another’s struggle is no help to them unless you offer a reciprocal experience of becoming seen by them. The mutuality of human connection lies in the ability of two people to make an impact on one another. There is no relationship without mutual recognition.

Over these last weeks, so many of you have taken considerable trouble to tell me how much my ministry has meant for you. Many of you have spoken about the experience of my recognizing and meeting you at a place of need and of my journeying with you through experiences of doubt and fear. My parting charge to you is to go and do likewise with one another.

The writer of 1st Peter reminds us that God calls us all to spiritual friendship not in spite of, but because of our experience of fear and estrangement wherever the sources of those feeling might lie. In the Christian community we are called to like living stones, let ourselves be built into a spiritual house, for we are no less than a royal priesthood claimed by God as his own.

[1] 1st Peter 2:2

[2] 1st Peter 2:4

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